Protecting What is Yours: A Three-Step Fight Against Identity Theft

If you've followed the news in recent months, headlines featuring major international merchants falling victim to data breaches are no stranger.  Consumers were shocked to hear that hackers were able to steal the personal and financial information they had provided to these merchants. The result: depleted bank accounts, compromised credit cards, unwanted accrued debts, and a scarred credit score with precipitous consequences.

For those fortunate enough to have avoided hackers thus far, more often than not there is a sense of security in thinking, “It'll never happen to me.”  According to the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) recent annual report, however, your identity may not be as safe as you think it is.  Identity theft is a real thing; the best way to protect yourself is to become informed.

The FTC's Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book for January to December 2013 reports that identity theft was the year's most common consumer complaint filed with the FTC.  Of the more than two million complaints received by the FTC, identity theft comprised 290,056 (or, 14%) of the complaints.

The report also reveals the ages and locations that are most commonly found among identity theft victims. Twenty percent of the identity theft-related complaints in 2013 were reported by individuals between the ages of 20 and 29 years old, making persons in this age range more likely to fall victim to identity theft than those of other ages.  Persons outside of that age range, though, still need to be vigilant; the truth is that people of all ages are vulnerable to identity theft.

Your likelihood of falling victim to identity theft also depends on the state in which you reside.  Residents of the State of Florida should be most wary of identity theft, as the per capita rate of reported identity theft was highest in Florida (192.9 complaints per 100,000 persons), followed by Georgia and California.  New York ranked ninth on the list, with a reported 86.9 complaints per 100,000 persons.

As the FTC report details, identity theft is a serious issue for consumers of all ages across America.  No consumer is immune to identity theft; the best thing you can do is become educated on a simple 3-step approach to identity theft: 1) Protect; 2) Identify; 3) Repair.

The paramount way to protect yourself from the dangers of identity theft is to take precautions to limit the accessibility of your personal information.  There are four main ways for consumers to protect their personal information:

  1. Know who you share information with
    1. Be alert to impersonators and scammers over the phone/computer
    2. Be wary of revealing too much on social media
  2. Store and dispose of your information securely
    1. Destroy receipts, bank statements, credit card statements, prescription labels, …
    2. Limit your wallet/purse carrying: only carry day-to-day essentials
    3. Collect mail promptly from your mailbox
    4. Clear all information from a computer or cell phone prior to disposal
  3. Ask questions before deciding to share your personal information
    1. Never give information to a company or person with which you didn’t initiate contact without inquiring further
    2. Ask why is it needed? How will it be protected? What are the consequences of not sharing?
  4. Maintain appropriate security on computers and other electronic devices.

You can fall victim to identity theft even if the appropriate precautions are taken. Therefore, it is imperative that you are able to immediately recognize identity theft once it has occurred.  Learning these indicators of identity theft can help save precious time and limit the damage:

 

  1. You see withdrawals from your bank account that you can’t explain.
  2. You don’t get your bills or other mail.
  3. Merchants refuse your checks.
  4. Debt collectors call you about debts that aren’t yours.
  5. You find unfamiliar accounts or charges on your credit report.
  6. Medical providers bill you for services you didn’t use.
  7. Your health plan rejects your legitimate medical claim because the records show you’ve reached your benefits limit.
  8. A health plan won’t cover you because your medical records show a condition you don’t have.
  9. The IRS notifies you that more than one tax return was filed in your name, or that you have income from an employer you don’t work for.
  10. You get notice that your information was compromised by a data breach at a company where you do business or have an account.

Once you’re aware that an identity thief has struck you, the best thing you can do is take immediate action to repair the damage done. Consider these first steps:

 

  1. Place an initial fraud alert with one of the national credit bureaus
    1. Fraud alert limits the new accounts that can be opened by the thief; before issuing credit, a business must verify your identity by contacting you
  2. Order credit reports
    1. Obtain a free report from each credit bureau to Identity the tampered with/fraudulent accounts
    2. Contact the related businesses by phone and in writing; initiate repair process
  3. Create an identity theft report
    1. Provides proof of the theft; supports remedial actions requested of businesses, credit bureaus, and debt collectors.
    2. How to create:
      1. Submit a complaint to the FTC; print detailed report once completed—this is called an Identity Theft Affidavit.
      2. File a police report about the identity theft, and get a copy of the police report or the report number.

[Your FTC Identity Theft Affidavit and your police report make an Identity Theft Report]

After these initial actions are taken, it is crucial to monitor the repair progress: log all of your telephone calls (who, when, why); keep copies of all written correspondence; keep all original documents/reports—mail copies; meet all deadlines set by the companies you’re dealing with.  It is a long but necessary road to recovery.

Be sure to remember this 1) Prevent; 2) Identify; 3) Repair process for identity theft as you work to protect what should only belong to you—your identity.

Article written by Joel N. Patch, Esq.  For more information contact Mr. Patch at 607-231-6987 or via email at jpatch@hhk.com.

 

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